Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Opinion: Big money in Trump’s Swamp


Pharmaceutical giant Novartis now acknowledges that it paid $1.2 million in carefully structured payments to Trump fixer Michael Cohen, allegedly for Cohen’s expertise on “U.S. health-care policy matters.”

That’s odd. Beyond financing the occasional abortion for girlfriends of GOP bigwigs, Cohen has no discernible expertise on “U.S. health-care policy matters.” Nor has he ever registered as a lobbyist. For its part, Novartis is so comfortable and proud of its just-uncovered association with Cohen and his company, Essential Consultants, that it quickly moved to distance current management from the deal.

“The engagement of Essential Consultants predated Vas Narasimhan becoming Novartis CEO,” the company stressed in its public statement. “Dr. Narasimhan had no involvement whatsoever with this arrangement.”

AT&T, which is attempting to win approval from the federal government for a merger with Time Warner, also paid at least $200,000 and as much as $600,000 to Essential Consultants, supposedly as compensation for Cohen’s “insight” into the new administration.

A third company, Korea Aerospace Industries, paid Cohen’s account $150,000, supposedly for “legal consulting concerning accounting standards on production costs.”

Again, Cohen has no known expertise or experience on “accounting standards on production costs.” But KAI, a South Korean firm, is competing for a $16 billion contract to sell training jets to the Pentagon.

And then of course, there’s the $500,000 paid to Cohen by Columbus Nova, a financial management firm. The company says that “after the inauguration, the firm hired Michael Cohen as a business consultant regarding potential sources of capital and potential investments in real estate and other ventures.” The company strongly denies allegations linking that payment to Viktor Vekselberg, a Putin crony and Russian oligarch who is now under American sanctions. Its statement addressing the transaction stresses the point that Columbus Nova is American-owned and American-run.

On the other hand, Columbus Nova does have significant and undeniable business ties to Vekselberg and his company, the Renova Group. Its CEO, Andrew Intrater, sits on the Renova board. Renova has been its biggest client. Intrater and Vekselberg are cousins. Together, they attended Trump’s inauguration. And when Intrater donated $235,000 to the inauguration committee, he listed “Renova US Management” as his employer.

And of course, Essential Consultants LLC had uses for Cohen other than as a conduit for payments from those seeking favor from the Trump administration. As we know, it was also the source of the $130,000 paid to buy the silence of porn star Stormy Daniels, who has been anything but silent. Daniels’ attorney, Michael Avenatti, somehow acquired the documents  laying out the above transactions.

So what does it all mean? No one -- or at least no one outside of Cohen, Trump and Robert Mueller’s investigative team -- really quite knows for sure. Was Cohen the sole beneficiary of the money? Do similar LLCs exist, performing similar functions? Does the involvement of Renova add to questions about potential money-laundering by Cohen and Trump through Manhattan real estate?

At the very least, this exposes yet another link between Russian oligarchs and the Trump campaign and organization. It also allows a glimpse into the seamy, you might even say swampy, world of influence-peddling in which a marginal figure such as Cohen can leverage large sums of money for doing pretty much nothing.

We have also been reminded once again that Robert Mueller and his friends have been very busy people, and that we still know very little about the full extent of that investigation. Novartis says its employees were interviewed by the special counsel’s office about the payments back in November. Vekselberg was detained and questioned about the payments earlier this year, as was Intrater.  Whatever lays at the bottom of this mess, Mueller will get at it if given time.

And that, I suspect, is why that whiff of panic from the White House has become so pronounced.


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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.